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Folk Music Canada introduces award for industry innovators

Michelle Ferguson | Fulcrum Staff

Photo by the Fulcrum

INNOVATIVE FOLK MUSIC may sound like an oxymoron to some, but for Folk Music Canada, it is a reason to celebrate.

In November 2012, the organization will hand out its first ever Innovator Award at the 2012 Canadian Folk Music Awards, to be held in Saint John, N.B. The honour will be given to a pioneer of the folk community.

“The purpose is really to underline things that people are doing that set a new mould in the folk world,” said Tamara Kater, executive director of Folk Music Canada.

While folk music is usually described as traditional, Kater insists that it should not be considered stagnant.

“Even though folk is based on tradition, it’s something that really comes from the people,” she said. “The music of the people never really stands still.”

It’s sort of ironic, then, that the sector of music that’s been given the “traditional” tag would reward innovation, while the majority of the mainstream music industry has fought tirelessly—and often illogically—against it. One might recall earlier this year when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued LimeWire for $72 trillion, which is more money than actually exists in the whole world.

Ridiculous claims like these are part of major labels’ vehement refusal to adapt to the age of technology and the free culture movement. But over at Folk Music Canada, the kind of innovative thinking that could straighten out the music industry—without trying to force a new generation of consumers to conform to an old school of business—might actually be rightfully rewarded.

Unlike most music awards, the innovator award is not centred on the art form or on a musician’s recordings. Instead, Folk Music Canada wishes to focus on the development of the folk community as a whole.

“What we’re looking for is something that is new,” said Kater. “[This] can come from any aspect of the folk community. It could be an artist manager who found a new way of having management relationships with their artist, or it could be a festival that found a new way of operating, and who, for example, is not reliant on government grants.”

Ottawa, which just came off its 18th annual Folk Festival, has a thriving folk community. But, as far as innovation goes, it’s hard to tell how the city fares.

There are two main institutions that promote and celebrate folk music in Ottawa, other than the Ottawa Folk Festival.

The Ottawa Folklore Centre, founded in 1976, acts as a hub for local talent and developing musicians by selling instruments, hosting events, and providing lessons for an array of unique instruments such as the Sri Lankan drum and the djembe. Spirit of Rasputin’s, an event organizer created in 2009 after a fire burned down the iconic Rasputin Folk Café, also provides opportunities for locals to showcase their talent.

In 2010, these two organizations came together to create a series of “folkcasts,” an online concert series that could be accessed through YouTube or the Ottawa Folklore Centre website.

These “folkcasts” are the kind of effort that could be nominated for the Folk Music Canada innovator award. Unfortunately, they stopped being produced in 2011.

Although not the focus of the award, musicians can also be nominated. Artists who have found new ways of approaching the music or who have created a new model for collaboration are examples of potential nominees.

Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Dan Mangan, who played at this year’s Ottawa Folk Festival, is a prime example of a Canadian musician who stands on the fringe of folk. On his third album, Oh Fortune, Mangan truly pushes the envelope by collaborating with many improvisational and experimental musicians to create a refreshing sound.

In many ways, the award itself could be considered innovative; according to Kater, not only is it the first award created by Folk Music Canada, but it’s also the first of its kind.

“There are other like-minded organizations that give out awards as well,” said Kater, “but we don’t really know of anyone who is giving out recognition to a new, cutting-edge, or innovative aspect of the community.”

The nomination process is also different from most awards; nominees are chosen by members of the folk community, in the hopes that this will draw attention to efforts that may otherwise go unnoticed in such a large, decentralized body of fans.

Due to the broad nature of the award, Kater admits that she has no expectations when it comes to the list of nominees.

“It’s the first year that we are opening up to the community to bring in nominations,” she said. “So in many ways, we’re as curious as everyone else to see what is going to come in and we’re asking the community around us to identify things that they see as innovative.”

Due to the amount of media attention and in the hopes of receiving a greater number of nominations from the community, the deadline for nominations—originally set for this week—has been extended to Sept. 30.